Poor old Vatican—it has been well and truly had. When the Metropolitan Museum in New York asked it for loans for an exhibition that would be “a dialogue between fashion and masterworks of medieval art in the museum’s collections to examine fashion’s ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism”, it cannot have expected the frivolous, ignorant and at times sacrilegious extravaganza that confronted Cardinal Timothy Dolan on the opening night of Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination (until 8 October).
Let us draw a veil over the guests’ attire. While they must have been warmly encouraged by the show’s curator Andrew Bolton to go to such outrageous lengths, ultimately it was their choice whether to come with a Nativity scene (to mention just one example) on their heads or not.
What does this exhibition reveal about the Met? To start off with, the declared intention of the exhibition is a lie; there is no engagement with “the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism”.
Gianni Versace’s Byzantine mosaic Madonna forming the upper body of a skimpy mini-dress has no relationship with devotion to the person venerated as the Mother of God, except perhaps to put two feeble fingers up to it. One exhibit is called Communion, with a chalice embroidered below the cleavage of a mousseline dress. Does its designer, Jean Paul Gaultier, know that communion is the most sacred part of the Catholic mass, a moment when the congregation falls to its knees?
Gianni Versace’s Byzantine mosaic Madonna forming the upper body of a skimpy mini-dress has no relationship with devotion to the person venerated as the Mother of God, except perhaps to put two feeble fingers up to it.
When Alexander McQueen makes a crown of thorns as a piece of costume jewellery, it is not in tribute to the sacrifice made by the man called Jesus 2000 years ago, which formed one of the world’s great religions and the culture of the west; nor has it any relationship with the works in the museum’s collection about the Passion. It is utterly without meaning except the childish desire to be outrageous.
One New York newspaper writes that loud-speakers “twitter the Ave Maria”, and a faint aroma of incense pervades the galleries. How predictable, how crass. This show is all about fleeting impressions, fashionable feminism (the female bishop’s dress by John Galliano), celebrity culture, facile shock value, and commodification of Catholic forms and iconography (you too can buy a stylised nun outfit by a star designer).
When I lie on a massage couch having my flesh pummelled to the sound of monks chanting “God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me”, I forgive my masseuse because she hasn’t a clue what she’s doing when she chooses this as mood music. The Met does not have this excuse. They know their historic collections and so they should know what they mean, but in their permanent displays they fail to communicate that meaning; they are still stuck in the old taxonomic presentation of the works (date, material, maker, origin).
This show is all about fleeting impressions, fashionable feminism, celebrity culture, facile shock value, and commodification of Catholic forms and iconography.
Compare that with the huge efforts made by the Victoria & Albert Museum a few years ago to engage with people of all faiths and none when they rearranged their Medieval and Renaissance galleries to explain the transcendent and ritual aspects of the works, as well as their artistic qualities. Academic art history is capable of showing religious understanding, as we saw with the National Gallery of London’s 2009 exhibition of 17th-century Spanish painting and sculpture.
These two museums have proved that they respect religious artefacts; the Met consigns them to being dead specimens, which is what has allowed a show like Heavenly Bodies to take place under its roof. After all, if a cross is just an ornament, a bit of antiquarianism, then who cares if you show ball gowns with crosses on them? And yet, in many museums, ritual objects from other cultures are now being treated with the regard due to them. Why should Catholicism be the exception?
What is going on at the Met now should not be compared with Frederico Fellini’s famous ecclesiastical fashion show in his satirical movie Roma (1972). This deliberately aimed to offend, but for an intelligent reason: it was an attack on a Vatican that intervened heavily in Italian politics from the gilded drawing rooms of the Roman aristocracy, and it was a mockery of the anachronistically baroque clerical dress and etiquette then still common among the higher clergy.
A show like Heavenly Bodies, which offends so many but is brainless, degrades the Met. It owes the Vatican—and the public—an apology.